Behind the scenes on newspaper deadline day – as the baby threatens the dreaded pox

I was just a day into riding solo without my boss at work on Monday when Hanna announced Albie had suspected chicken pox.

“He’s running a fever over 38 degrees Celsius’, she helpfully exclaimed, asking what was wrong with him, as if running the office practically single-handed wasn’t challenging enough and I had also mastered medicine on the side.

The only positive was that, having glass tested him for meningitis within an inch of his life, the suspicious, spotty rash he developed disappeared between the unhelpfully repetitive dinosaurs adorning the only beaker in the house.

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Ill – but mercifully not chicken pox in the end, it seems

The ‘Journalism Gods’ often like to test you, chucking in a system outage, unexpected fire drill or major breaking news event five minutes from deadline.

Things didn’t get better on Tuesday night when a water outage indicated I might need to do the job without the key ingredient to surviving as a human.

I had hoped for an early night to prepare for the long deadline day ahead – but an editor can’t really ignore leaky pipe news metres from his front doorstep, even if it is 11pm.

Wednesday came and it was deadline day, a solo mission improved only by the sudden turnaround in Albie’s condition. Admitting the mother-in-law was right about his affliction not being chicken pox – defying the opinions of both the doctor and pharmacist – was a small price to pay.

What’s the editor’s role on deadline day?

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At least someone was impressed!

It was early days in my journalism training when I was introduced to a whole host of laws I would shortly be eligible to break that normal people almost certainly wouldn’t encounter.

As the editor, you’ll be the one responsible for ensuring tens of thousands of words on dozens of pages are sent to the printers on deadline day in such a way as to avoid the numerous legal and ethical pitfalls in your sights.

As the editor, you’ll be the one wearily correcting copy featuring the usual grammatical cock-ups, feeling frustrated until you remember you made that mistake for months before the hairdryer treatments finally did the trick.

As the editor, you’ll be completing all the fiddly, technical tasks behind the scenes which readers never see – but if you didn’t do them, their Worthing Herald would carry the Littlehampton Gazette front page and provide you with a day’s worth of angry phone calls.

And even if the week’s papers have come out in their intended way, free of horrendous gaffes, you can bet someone will call in to say: “I can’t believe you spelled ‘cheese’ ‘cheeese’ on page 64, you cretin!”

Sometimes you might have a partner in crime to lighten the load but this week, for the first time, it was largely down to me.

My first solo deadline day went as well as could be expected, thanks to a bit of help from more experienced colleagues and about eight cups of tea before lunchtime.

Sound advice

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This week’s efforts

“Remember, the paper has never not come out,” my boss reminded me as he departed on Friday in what I’m sure was meant to be a reassuring tone.

“There’s always a first time for everything,” I warned, just to cover myself in case the worst did happen.

Our structure at work is pretty complex but in essence my job as content editor is to look after the first 20-odd pages of each of the four editions making up the Worthing Herald series.

Someone else deals with other sections of the paper but overall responsibility for ensuring everything comes together in the end falls to me and my boss, who also looks after several other titles across the county.

Along with the sports editor, his job description also apparently involves daily ribbing about my ‘poor’ fantasy football team. I’m not sure if this is an official duty.

When he’s off, a lot of the tasks which are usually shared between us to make life relatively stress free essentially become my privilege.

Trying not to cock it up

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Damn news, happening on the doorstep!

Despite finding plenty of time to enquire where my fantasy team placed in the office league standings this week (3rd, for the record, ahead of him but I’m informed that’s beside the point), his absence demonstrated how much of the fiddly stuff he takes on.

On a Tuesday, he will send a list of pages to the printers, indicating which pages will be ‘changing’. For example, some pages might carry the same stories whether it’s the Shoreham Herald or the Lancing Herald. Others, like the front page or page three, will always carry news stories solely relevant to their respective areas.

A typo in this list spells disaster and while it can initially be amusing thinking of readers trying to work out why their page four has Shoreham stories and their page five has Littlehampton leads, the novelty swiftly wears off when the 100th caller rings in to point this out.

Then, there are other menial tasks, like producing each week’s ‘sketch plans’, outlining how the paper will look in terms of page templates, advertisement placements and pull-outs, need to be sent to the page planners. I took one look at this and declared it gobbledegook and someone else stepped in to prevent inevitable chaos!

Rubgy from Worthnig

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There are Facebook pages dedicated to the embarrassing errors which local newspaper editors should have noticed before papers hit the shelves.

There was a time when the logo on the Littlehampton front page read ‘The Littehampton Gazette’, while tales of ‘rubgy’ reports in ‘Worthnig’ are remembered years after their unfortunate printing.

Early in my tenure an innocent letter supposed to be about ‘saving your pennies’ to go on a new big wheel ride instead read ‘saving your pennisses’, not even spelling the male appendage correctly.

It happens to the best of us and, sometimes, the human eye only decides to spot errors milliseconds after the final page is sent to press.

I’ve already told you how my description of one town being ‘depraved’ rather than ‘deprived’ raised eyebrows. I’ve not told you about the time readers called for an ex-colleague to be sacked for portraying a fairly pleasant area as some kind of ghetto.

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail

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As well as organisation, you’ll also need a healthy knack of writing cringeworthy puns…

It’s not just a case of everyone writing the stories, all the boxes in digital versions of the papers on your computer screens being completed and everyone heading off for a post-deadline pint.

Once each page is complete, they each need to be read, proofed and individually sent to the printers.

A bit like the laborious ‘cut and stick’ exercises you used to be forced to do at school, deadline day is all about making sure the dozens of pages are proofed and sent off in time.

Riding solo this week, two people’s page-sending duties became one, while planning everything in time and painstakingly putting together the various elements for each front page felt like it required Army training.

Organisation is key and given this, I can only presume the powers that be didn’t take into account my horrifically messy desk as an indicator of my suitability.

Time will tell

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Producing papers is nothing like it used to be. Now it’s all digitised, you can see what everything is going to look like.

Even so, you won’t know for certain everything has gone to plan until the papers hit the shelves and you can assess your handiwork.

A day after deadline, no-one had complained. That’s either a sign nothing is wrong, or down to the fact no-one bought a paper!

If the phones started ringing off the hook on Friday and I suddenly revert this blog to ‘Spews’, you’ll know it went terribly and one half of this blog is now redundant!

It’s never easy

It’s certainly easy to criticise when you see something which isn’t up to our high standards. Papers cost money and anyone shelling out is entitled to their opinion.

What I hope this blog outlines, though, is that there’s an awful lot of things which need to happen behind closed doors to get the papers out. There are many more little things which all have to come together.

Every single member of staff works tirelessly and does their level best. Yes, mistakes may be made but statistically, the vast majority of the words in each paper are well executed.

We hope you enjoy them.

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Read more: How changing jobs has improved family time

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